When I first started my business, one of the things I heard over and over from successful business owners was that it is always easier and less costly to keep your customers than to go out and get new ones. This just makes sense, of course. We get new training class students by advertising (brochures and flyers, ads in the newspaper), taking part in community events and volunteer efforts, word of mouth from happy clients and dog professionals, prospective clients seeing our building or seeing us at work, giving talks for local groups, joining the local Chamber of Commerce, and just being as visible as we can in our communities. Some of these ways to get students cost money and some require time. Either way, we will expend some effort.
If we can figure out ways to keep the students we have already enrolled in class, we will depend less on bringing in new ones and reduce the money, effort, and time needed to do that. With our classes fuller, replacing those empty spots will be much easier. How can we convince our students to stay with us and keep bringing their dogs to our classes?
One of the best strategies is to always give more than you have to. Whatever your students expect, provide more. More value for what they have spent will put them in the frame of mind to keep coming back. A good way to do this is to offer a lifetime guarantee on your training. If your students know up front that they can always participate in a class when they want to or need to, and at little or even no additional cost to them, they will come to you first and forever. Your success with this plan will depend a great deal on how much time, space and manpower you can provide repeat students. If you run enough basic classes so that adding one or two “lifetime guarantee” students in each session won’t be really noticed, this is probably the best way to go. Even if you have to tell a student they may need to wait a few weeks or a month before they can be accommodated, most will understand. This method is relatively painless for you, the instructor, and keeps your “lifetime guarantee” student happy. And as a plus, happy students are out there recommending your classes!
Sometimes the “lifetime guarantee” can produce more students than you can realistically blend into new classes, but if you have the time and space, you can run a special class for them. Put a cute name on it like “Beginner Times Two,” or “More Beginner,” and no one feels singled out as “having” to do more. I know an instructor who is fortunate enough to have an assistant who runs this class pretty much all year for her, and loves it. Because of its small size, she sees great results in the dog/handler teams and students know they are getting a super value. She does charge a small “administrative” fee, which is basically covering what she would owe the Parks and Rec department that provides the space for her. If this class is run concurrently with another or you have time right after a class, you may feel you can get by without charging at all. I have done it both ways and both work well.
Another way to keep students is to provide “bridge” classes. Perhaps you would normally send your beginners right into intermediate, or novice class. Many may have young dogs and just need a little more time before they get too serious in their training. Perhaps you have students who really don’t have any interest in going on to obedience or rally. They may have already told you they don’t want to do anything competitive. Do you have a place in your schedule for a “fun” type class like tricks or an agility sampler? How about a class that meets in the real world, where every meeting is a field trip? This can be as simple as meeting on Sunday afternoon in the park, or planning walking tours in a shopping area (with a fun stop at a dog-friendly café, of course)! Do you have students who would enjoy the “social class” type format, where everyone hikes together in a group with dogs off lead? These kinds of classes can be as unique as your interests are, and scheduled routinely or as student interest warrants. Normally, once things like weather and your manpower are factored in, you’ll find that keeping these “bridge” classes flexible is a good idea. I always found that charging an “each time” fee worked best for me, and that way no one felt locked in to a bunch of classes.
Many schools will offer a CGC periodically so that their beginner students can take part in this wonderful AKC program. If you keep the fee low enough to cover your costs, maybe provide a little gift to your evaluator and some cute extras for the handlers and their dogs, lots of folks will take part. The CGC can sometimes provide just that little motivation a student needs to decide to go further in their training. It is a great way to bring in families, and is non-competitive enough that most of your students will want to try for that award. If you have the time at the end of a beginner session and your classes are small, you can easily build the CGC into the course itself and many instructors do. I always found it easier to put on a separate event, usually out at the park where we’d get spectators, and we knew we’d have time to run it smoothly. Photo ops and refreshments afterwards will keep everyone in a great mood. Students who are happy and having a good time in your programs are likely to want to stay in your programs.
Get creative about offering ways for your handlers to socialize. One big reason people either enjoy dog obedience class or merely endure and get through it is their ability to socialize and simply enjoy themselves. You will keep more students if they feel like they have a pleasant place to meet new friends. If you have building, make sure there is a place for folks to sit and talk, perhaps have soft drink, coffee, or just a water, and share with others who are also working to train their dogs. If your class is outdoors, it costs little to load up your cooler with some ice and water for afterwards. Having extra lawn chairs is good as well. Scheduling special events throughout the year where trainers and their dogs can come out and socialize with other students is always a plus. Even just an annual picnic can make your students want to stay with you.
Dog owners are quite savvy nowadays; they watch TV and know what dog activities are out there. If you have students who really want to do agility or fly ball, for example, and you don’t offer them, find a way to set up a reciprocal program with your friend down the road who does. For example, you send your student to her, and she promises to send hers to you for obedience (or problem solving, social class, or whatever else you do that she doesn’t do). You are helping one another and you both will probably end up with that student at one time or another. If you really don’t have what your student wants, don’t be afraid to refer him on, as this makes you look good and they will remember that.
Do you have a business web site? Make sure you are using it effectively so that your students feel like you appreciate them and you are continually giving them something of value. Of course you post your handouts and provide tips and answer questions, but you can also post photos of your students and their dogs. Most folks love this, and if you will make sure they can “lift” them off so they can share them, you will please many.
Of course, it goes without saying that the best way to keep students in your program is to provide them with what sent them to you in the first place: a trained dog that is safe in their home and community, and fun to have around. If your students are successful and finish your class with a dog that is better than when they came to you, they will understand the value of training and why it is for a lifetime. If they feel like they have learned how to prevent and solve problems, and know they can always call on you if they need advice, they needn’t be perfect. Results oriented classes will always keep your students happy!
Our economy can be a brutal place to run a small business, and we all need to find ways to set ourselves apart from the competition. Be smart: work hard to fill your classes AND understand and use strategies to keep those students!